Taken from "Custer's Last Stand" by Mort Kunstler

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The Troopers of the 7th Cavalry

 

At the end of the Civil War the nation was tired of war. Many units were deactivated and many of the officers and men who populated the armies sent home. The focus centered on occupation duties within the southern states, and issues of Indian control took second place.

However, while the army concentrated on their duties in the south, America turned its attention toward westward expansion. This clearly expressed itself in the extension of railroads such as the Union Pacific, Central Pacific and Kansas Pacific. The Army itself had to expand to protect the railroads from Indian raids and thus was born the 7th Cavalry as well as three other cavalry units (see The 7th U. S. Cavalry: A brief history amid controversy). Recruiting efforts brought in former military personnel, however many of the recruits were recent immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany, some of whom did not understand English. By the end of September, 1866, the 7th Cavalry's strength was 882 men. They were commanded by officers of the 2nd Cavalry, with officers assigned to the 7th Cavalry assembling through November and December of that year.

As the railroads expanded west the Armies had to be there to defend them, and this meant the building of new forts in which the troops could be housed. During this era the military relied on their own personnel for the construction of facilities, and the enlistees found themselves kept busy as construction crews, on top of their nominal training in the military manuals of arms. The expansion of facilities across the west, in fact, often came at the expense of military training. During much of this time enlisted personnel were issued a mere 9 rounds of ammunition per year for target practice. In Custer's 7th Cavalry by E. Leslie Reedstrom, the following is found on page 5: "As one soldier wrote from Fort Harker, some 90 miles southwest of Fort Riley: 'There has been no drills here the past winter, the soldiers being all occupied in building quarters. Isn't it a mistake on the part of the government to require enlisted men to work as common laborers with no opportunity to perfect themselves in drill?' On top of this, the further expansion of facilities meant that many posts were left under garrisoned in both officers and enlisted personnel. 

When the enlistees were given training in military arts, concentration was on military drill and various manuals such as those of the sabre, carbine and pistol, rather than on unit maneuvering and cohesion. A soldier's allegiance turned to his 'Bunkie' and little thought was given to unit integrity or pride. Desertions became a serious problem. Being dishonorably discharged and drummed out of the military was of little concern to the average enlistee. It simply meant he was done with the Army and free to pursue other interests. 

Rations were another concern, as well as a lack of field 'experience'. We read from the Army Navy Journal - Sept. 1, 1866: "...men depended on the smallest of rations provided by the government, and flour, salt, meat, and hardtack were often of the poorest quality. Vegetables and sugar seldom showed up on the soldiers' diet, only now and then did potatoes and cabbage make their appearance. The usual rations of eight ounces of bread, three-quarter pound fat pork or salt beef, or one-quarter pound fresh beef, were daily issues expected while in garrison. Occasionally, one pint of soup made of hominy accompanied a serving, other wise a pint of hot steaming army coffee washed down the meal". And while much has been made in books and movies and television of the 'Cavalry vs. the Indians', in actual fact contact with the enemy, over the course of the 20 years of armed conflict after the civil war, occurred over a wide area of the west by a large number of military units. This meant that an individual unit, let alone an individual officer or enlisted man, developed modest experience in Indian engagements. While the 7th Cavalry itself was already in the field over 9 years at the time of the Little Big Horn, it had only experienced one major engagement with the Indians, and that occurred almost 8 years previously.

By the mid 1870's conditions may have improved somewhat for the 7th Cavalry, but it continued to have its share of problems. The officer corps remained divided over its allegiance to Lt. Col. Custer, and the regiment was under strength. In 1876 organizational strength (by the book) was as follows:

  • Regimental staff:                     8 officers, 6 non-commissioned officers
  • Company organization:           3 officers, 11 non-commissioned officers, 2 farriers & blacksmiths, 1 each saddler and wagoner, and 60 privates, totaling 78 officers & enlisted men per company.

The above figures are taken from Custer's 7th Cavalry by E. Leslie Reedstrom. It provides a total of 44 officers and 910 enlisted personnel, including non-commissioned officers. John S. Gray, in his book Centennial Campaign, The Sioux War of 1876 has compiled that on May 17th, the day the 7th Cavalry left Ft. Abraham Lincoln, it totaled, in contrast, 33 officers and 718 enlisted personnel. In addition, field detachments of 2 officers and 152 men left a battle strength on June 25th of only 31 officers and 566 enlisted personnel. This provides an alarming figure of 47 enlisted personnel per company. In addition to the regiment being under strength, much has been written about its personnel being under trained and inexperienced. We touched on the issue above, however by 1876 it may not have been as great an issue as it was 10 years earlier. Certainly, the number of 'raw recruits' was less than some writers/historians have alluded to, at least in terms of familiarity with military maneuvers, drill, and the military manual of arms. And these men had already spent a month in the field and were in far better shape physically than a month previously. Regardless of the strength of the regiment, and the experience of its troops, the 7th Cavalry thought of itself as the premier fighting unit on the western frontier. Lt. Col. Custer was not alone in wanting the 7th Cavalry to enjoy the glory of being the unit that brought the Indians to bay. It had little regard for the fighting ability of the Indian, and believed any camp encountered on the march would prefer to flee or surrender instead of fight an organized military unit.

June 25th was hot with little wind to relieve the heat. The men had already spent over 72 hours on the trail, on military rations, by the time they engaged the Indian village that afternoon. To some, this has meant the regiment was tired and didn't have the energy necessary to fight a prolonged engagement. However, on the 22nd the regiment spent from 4 p.m. that day, to 5 a.m. on the 23rd in camp on the trail. The next day they spent from 4:30 p.m. until 5 a.m. of the 24th in camp (these timelines come from John S. Gray's  Custer's Last Campaign, Mitch Boyer and the Little Bighorn Reconstructed). The 24th and 25th were, perhaps, the most punishing days of the march. More old Indian camps were discovered and multiple scouts were organized to follow up trails thought to be diverging from the main trail, causing rising excitement among the men. Nevertheless, two halts on the 24th of approximately 4 hours duration broke up that day's march, and the regiment encamped at approximately 8 p.m. This halt was broken by a night march, ordered by Custer, that began at approximately 12:30 a.m. on the 25th. A halt was made at around 3:15 a.m. and the trail was again taken up about 8:45 a.m.  During this, halt, however portions of the scouts were busy at the Crow's Nest. Custer himself left for the Crow's Nest around 8:00 a.m. A second halt that day occurred around 10:00 a.m. and the regiment as a whole didn't take up the trail again until just prior to noon (see Custer marches: June 22nd to June 24th). Again, periods of march were broken by periods of rest. I do not see where this schedule lends itself to an implication the men were over tired and unfit to engage the enemy.

In 1896 then Major E. S. Godfrey (in 1876 a Lt. with 'K' Company) described how the men were dressed. Most of the enlisted personnel "wore the blue" although a number of men may have worn flannel shirts. Some, if not most, had white canvas reinforcing the pants from the knees up to the seat. Short- topped boots (which were then standard issue) were the norm. Some officers did wear high-topped 'Wellington style' boots. The officers wore the dark blue shirt, some wore blouses ( a few of buckskin) although not many were probably worn that hot June day. All wore military trousers. Lt. Harrington may have worn white canvas trousers with fringed legs. Custer wore a fringed buckskin suit and a wide brimmed slouch hat with low crown, white or light gray. Head gear ran the gamut from standard military hats and campaign hats, to straw hats issued before leaving the Yellowstone.

Standard issue was the 1873 Springfield 'trap door' carbine in .45/55 caliber along with the Colt 1873 Army Model revolver, also in .45 caliber, with 7 1/2" barrel. Lt. Col. Custer apparently carried (according to Godfrey) a Remington Sporting Rifle and two English Bulldog self-cocking revolvers (although 1st Sgt. John Ryan, Troop M states he carried a .45 caliber Colt and a French Navy revolver). Each man was issued 100 rounds of carbine ammunition, half of which were carried on his belt and the other half in his saddlebag. 24 rounds of pistol ammunition were also issued. This accounts for over 74,000 rounds of ammunition carried on person, over 26,000 being available to Custer's battalion. I doubt that claims of the battalion running out of ammunition can be taken seriously. In fact Indian accounts tell of their relieving the bodies of unspent ammunition, and it is certainly probable, based on archaeological information, that a number of troopers weapons were used by the Indians against Custer's, Reno's and Benteen's battalions during the course of the engagement.

Much has been written about the 1873 'trap-door' Springfield and its propensity to malfunction, especially under field conditions. Special attention was drawn to the 'apparent' failure of the extraction mechanism to eject spent cartridges after firing. This had various causes, among which included expanded cartridges, problems with the breechblock mechanism, and fouling from dust or dirt. Again, the archaeological project  of 1984-1985 found that only 5.8% of the cartridges found and analyzed at both the Custer and Reno battle sites bore marks representing problems with extraction. This hardly bears support to any conclusions that mechanical failure was a primary cause of Custer's defeat. Another issue is whether the regiment was inadequately armed, the 1873 Springfield being a single shot rifle and the Indians being armed with repeating rifles. The 1873 Springfield had superior firepower and range compared to the repeating arms of the day. Its use by trained military units against an enemy such as on June 25th should not have contributed to their defeat. If anything, the training (or lack thereof) previously discussed is likely more contributable to the defeat than the issue of weaponry.

Indian weapons were quite diverse ranging from clubs to bows and arrows, lances, muskets, to the latest in repeating rifles, even pistols and shotguns. It has long been thought that Indian weaponry was more primitive than modern (to that era), however the archaeological project of the mid 1980's proved that repeating arms were in more abundance than originally thought, and perhaps used effectively to precipitate the defeat of Custer's battalion (see June 25th: "We will find enough Sioux to keep us fighting two or three days"

Custer had previously issued orders that horse stock was to be allocated to the various companies by color. This was to provide a sense of company identification and unity within the regiment. Distribution was as follows:

  • Sorrels:         Companies C (light), G and K
  • Bays:             Companies B, D, F, H (blood), I and L
  • Grays:           Company E
  • Blacks:          Company A
  • Mixed:          Company M

Lt. Col. Custer was mounted on a favorite Sorrel named 'Vic'. The only mount that was a part of Custer's battalion and survived the battle was 'Comanche', a bay belonging to Capt. Miles Keogh of Company I.

In conclusion, the 7th Cavalry, like many military units of the time, was not the trained, experienced and unified unit one would expect to send into combat. Many of its personnel were of foreign birth, some had language barriers, and many were inexperienced in Indian warfare. The regiment was also significantly under strength. However, it believed that of any unit in the field it was uniquely qualified to pursue the Indians to ground and successfully engage them in battle. It carried the most modern weapons of the day, found by the U. S. Army to be superior to repeating arms, and did not consider the Indian a worthy opponent; one who would prefer to run rather than hold and fight. In my opinion, this underestimation of the Indian's willingness to fight, coupled with the 7th's lack of real combat experience and unit cohesion,, were dominant factors in Custer's defeat.

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